Kegs in the kitchen and rolling cocktail carts in the office are still a thing for some technology companies, marketing agencies and consulting firms that embrace alcohol consumption in the workplace as part of their organizational culture.
But alcohol can also be a divisive issue in the workplace, and in some instances, it actually might be a deterrent for some potential employees, according to new research published by Oregon State University.
Anthony Klotz, an assistant professor in the College of Business at OSU, and co-author Serge da Motta Veiga of American University, conducted two studies to evaluate how permissive workplace norms affected prospective employees’ perceived fit with a company, and their overall attraction to the company. The results were published recently in the journal Human Resource Management
Crain’s spoke with Klotz about what they learned, and how he interprets the results.
Crain’s: What made you want to conduct this study? Is alcohol and the workplace an ongoing topic of research for you, or was this a new area of exploration?
Klotz: It’s relatively new and doesn’t necessarily align with my primary research streams, although I do study employee transitions – how they enter and exit their jobs, especially the different ways they quit them.
The focus on alcohol was new to me, but it is both a personal and a professional interest for me. I’ve been in Oregon for five years, and before that, I was getting my PhD in Norman, Okla. Norman is definitely a more conservative town and more conservative toward alcohol. I didn’t really drink with my colleagues, and if we were interviewing a new PhD candidate, we would never assume that they drank.
But when I was on the recruiting end and looking for a job in Oregon, I was largely soaked in alcohol. We have so many breweries, so many wineries. It was this very positive, healthy experience, in my opinion. People were sharing what makes Corvallis and Oregon State attractive.
The dichotomy really struck me. If they gave this recruiting pitch to a lot of folks I know from Oklahoma, it would be a turn-off. Even some of the drinkers would say it’s strange that it’s such a big part of the recruiting process. But Oregon State has one of the best hops fermentation programs in the world, and it’s considered a very serious science.
Crain’s: Tell me about the study.
Klotz: In the first study, 180 college students in an upper-division business course were randomly assigned to review one of two recruitment flyers for a fictitious company, and answer survey questions about their attraction to the organization and their perceived fit with the firm.
In one version of the flyer, employees were depicted holding coffee cups; in the other version, they held alcoholic beverages. The first version of the flyer described employee activities including staff luncheons, while the other listed happy hours.
In the second study, 122 college students were randomly given one of two variations of a job interview scenario involving dinner with prospective coworkers. In the first scenario, each coworker orders water at dinner; in the second, each coworker orders an alcoholic beverage. Study participants were asked what they would do next. They also answered similar questions about their attraction to the organization and perceived fit with the company.
In both studies, participants were also asked questions relating to their level of political skill, which refers to a set of social abilities that helps them effectively understand others at work, influence others in ways that enhance their own objectives, and navigate social situations with confidence.
My colleague and I predicted that those with high political skill are more likely to be comfortable at alcohol-based events, while those with low political skill may be unable to take advantage of the social benefits that the combination of alcohol and work provide.
The studies showed that participants with lower levels of political skill were less likely to see themselves as fitting in and wanting to work at the company when the recruiting advertising and dinner out included alcohol.
Crain’s: Was there anything that surprised you?
Klotz: We were looking at largely millennial-age college graduate students. I thought if anyone was going to love alcohol, it’d be this group in a college town.
Crain’s: Can you talk a little bit about how you see alcohol evolving in the workplace based on your research?
Klotz: It’s interesting that this study was done now, in the #MeToo era. People have talked to me about this since it was published. But you had the Mad Men era, when drinks were common. It was also a very masculine era, and many offices at that time probably weren’t the most comfortable places for women to be.
Silicon Valley, where alcohol also has been a perk, gets a lot of notoriety for its bro culture. Perhaps alcohol signals to people that a company is looking for a certain type of employee.
But these companies need to be careful about attracting the same people they’ve always attracted. Companies seem to be taking note of this. For instance, Amazon, in some of its new offices, touts the presence of kegs of kombucha, rather than beer.
So, it could be that alcohol in the workplace isn’t always a great mix when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It can make people uncomfortable.
Crain’s: What advice do you have navigating alcohol in the workplace for both employees and employers?
Klotz: This goes beyond the results of the study, but I think people need to be aware of who alcohol-based events might be excluding. People who have lives outside of work might not be able to make a two-hour happy hour. Employers need to make sure they are not excluding the less politically savvy, and the non-drinkers. Employers need to find other ways for people who prefer not to drink to network and have exposure to executives.
Mostly though, companies should be authentic about the culture of drinking within the workplace. If alcohol is part of the workplace culture, it should be clearly communicated in recruiting materials and through the hiring process. A realistic portrayal of the job at hiring leads to lower future turnover among employees. You don’t want to cover it up.
As for employees, they should think about whether the values they are seeing align with their values. Some of these small things can play an important role in whether you are happy and satisfied in your job.